Global postcode lottery for school meals

The shockwaves from the recession continue to ripple across the global divide, blind as ever to the principle of just desserts.

In Hampshire we learned of a sharp increase in the number of hard-up families claiming free school meals for their children. Provision of this benefit is secured by UK statute and the county will have to pay up.

In Bangladesh demand for school feeding programmes is also escalating as fallout from our toxic banks impoverishes people who will never go near a bank in their lives. Unfortunately a key provider in the shape of the World Food Programme is dependent on voluntary bilateral donations which are drying up.

This inverse relationship between supply and demand led to the WFP’s announcement this week that it can cover only 50% of its budget for 2009. This news comes just three weeks after G8 leaders issued the so-called L’Aquila Food Security Initiative which described emergency school feeding programmes as an “imperative goal.”

One of WFP’s many painful cuts around the world will reduce the school feeding programme in Bangladesh from 300,000 to 70,000 children.

The tragedy here is that school feeding programmes are amongst the most cost effective and efficient methods of delivering aid to poor countries. As well as combating real hunger and malnutrition, they provide incentives for families to send their children to school, especially girls. These programmes provide markets for local farmers and stimulate an infrastructure for local development which governments can take over when their finances permit.

The UK scheme also has a multi-layered agenda but of rather different complexion. The underlying principle of helping out poor families is overlaid with a witches’ brew of domestic tensions. First there is the problem that more than half of all children don’t like school dinners and opt for Mum’s packed lunch. This fuels concerns about junk food and obesity. Then we are told that about a quarter of eligible children prefer not to claim their free lunch, embarrassed by the implied financial status of their family.

This is a muddle of social behaviour, some of which is no business of government to address.

The Hampshire catering authority’s reassurance that it meets the government’s 2008 nutritional standards for school meals aroused my curiosity. I could hardly believe the exacting demands. Over a 3 week cycle, the average daily sodium content must not exceed 499mg, just one detail from a lengthy list of minerals and vitamins. A portion of bread, which would be caviar in a WFP programme, “must be available as an additional item, daily.”

I’m wary of drawing conclusions as I have no children in school. But I suspect that somewhere in this picture we have an example of over-development, the search to deliver big spending on welfare without being very clear about the real needs of families who, on average, spend less than 15% of disposable incomes on food. The solution is surely to provide for all or none.

If only that option existed beyond our borders.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK